Scientists are Heroes

12 02 2010

(Here’s the latest round in my campaign to convince scientists and engineers that the public sees them as respected heroes. This article appeared on The Scientist Web site, February 12, 2010. Free registration required)

The author of a new book contravenes the myth that the public views scientists as geeks or villains.

by Dennis Meredith

For me, the last straw came several years ago when the director of a major national laboratory declared to an audience of reporters at a large scientific meeting that the public sees scientists as geeky, unattractive, or “mad.” He wasn’t the first scientist to spout this corrosive myth about his own profession. But I hope that the clear evidence to the contrary in my book Explaining Research will make him the last.

In fact, I think that the public overwhelmingly sees scientists as heroes. This is demonstrated most convincingly in the positive portrayal of scientists in movies and TV shows, which are prime barometers of public perception.

Opinion polls also bear out the public’s perception of scientist-hero. In a 2006 Harris Poll, for example, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), scientists (77 percent) and professors (75 percent) far more than they did journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). And respondents to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press said that people who contributed the most to society’s well-being were members of the military, teachers, scientists, medical doctors, and engineers. The major survey Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, by the National Science Board concluded that “more Americans expressed a ‘great deal’ of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.”

However, the most dramatic insight into public perceptions of scientists comes from their depiction in movies and TV shows. After all, Hollywood tends to follow popular opinion when casting its heroes and villains. It seems to me that criminals, terrorists and greedy businessmen are the most frequent villains, and scientists among the most prevalent heroes. For example, in Jurassic Park, the heroes were paleontologist Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm. The villain was foolish entrepreneur John Hammond.

In Explaining Research, I decided to confirm this notion by presenting statistics on Hollywood’s portrayal of scientists. I compiled a list of some 140 films depicting scientists and engineers—drawing on the filmography in Sidney Perkowitz’s book Hollywood Science and also searching the Internet Movie Database. I then judged whether the scientists in those movies were heroes or villains. The analysis revealed about six times more scientist-heroes than scientist-villains. (For complete movie lists and discussion see “Scientist heroes” on the Explaining Research Web site.

Actually, the list of truly villainous scientists is even smaller because of a key caveat: most of the putative scientist-villains were not really evil, but merely flawed—either misguided or overly ambitious—or suffered when their research escaped their control. For example, in Spider-Man 2, the virtuous Dr. Otto Octavius transformed into the villainous “Doc Ock” when he was taken over by the mechanical tentacles he had developed as artificially intelligent tools. And in the end, it was Octavius, and not Spider-Man who saved the day by sinking the uncontrolled fusion ball into the sea.

Movie biologists have saved the earth—or at least a significant chunk of it—numerous times. For example, the scientists in the Andromeda Strain and Outbreak, rescued humanity from catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks through cutting edge science and a healthy dose of luck. They’ve even fought to save alien planets, as did Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) for the verdant Pandora in James Cameron’s latest blockbuster Avatar.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have portrayed scientist-heroes, including Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Nicolas Cage, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern, Robert Downey Jr., Harrison Ford, Cary Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Paxton, and Will Smith. Would those A-list actors sign on to play scientists if researchers were really considered geeks, devoid of personality?

Scientists are also equally heroic on TV these days. The bane of countless fictional criminals are the scientist-heroes of Bones, CSI (Las Vegas, New York, and Miami), Criminal Minds, NCIS, Numb3rs, and other popular crime dramas.

My aim in demonstrating that the public sees scientists as heroes is not just to boost scientists’ self-esteem, although that’s certainly important. I also hope that the next time a scientist stands before an audience to advocate for adequate research funding, argue for policies to alleviate global warming, or debate creationists, he or she will do so confident in having the considerable advantage of being seen as a trusted, credible, hero.

Disney Can Teach Lessons in Communicating Science

3 05 2009

You might think of Disney World as merely a vacation destination, with or without the requisite kids. But I’ve found that Disney really has much to teach researchers about communicating science and technology. And I don’t just mean tricks to hold the attention of squirmy school kids during a school science talk.

Disney World offers lessons about communication research that can make your seminars, Web content, and articles more engaging and thus effective. I really didn’t come to appreciate what Disney World can teach about explaining research until my latest trip. So, I dedicated the visit to exploring science communication Disney-style and how it offers take-home lessons that researchers might find useful.

Disney communicates science so effectively because its “imagineers” understand that just providing information is not enough. In creating Disney World, they understood that audiences need more than just information; they also need motivation to take in that information. And wherever possible, the imagineers offer audiences an involving experience that makes the information memorable. Researchers attempting to explain their research usually miss out on the benefits of motivation and experience because they neglect them in their communications.

For example, you likely see your departmental seminar as purely an informational event meant to convey as clearly as possible your latest experimental results. But because your audience comprises real people, reaching them most effectively also means motivating them and giving them an engaging experience.

To show what I’m talking about, here are examples from my Disney World visit, along with ideas on how you might apply them to make your research communications more effective. First, how Disney uses motivation:

As you might expect, Disney effectively motivates by injecting whimsy and humor into its science communication, especially using its cartoon characters, For example, in EPCOT’s The Land pavilion, for example, the “Circle of Life” movie uses characters from The Lion King to engagingly convey the need for environmental preservation. And in “The Seas with Nemo and Friends” pavilion, the entry ride superimposes cartoon characters over the real-life aquarium in the facility. (By the way, Disney offers useful Web pages giving an overview of its “Environmentality”  and Education programs.

In motivating visitors, Disney also knows how to take advantage of teachable moments to explain science. For example, bathrooms in the Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station have “Whiz Quiz” plaques posted over the urinals and on the stall doors. The Whiz Quiz over the men’s room urinals asked “How much do elephants pee?” (20 gallons), and How far can rhinos and tapirs pee? (15 feet).

Waiting for Animal Kingdom’s Dino-Land Dinosaur thrill ride, visitors hear a concise explanation of the meteorite impact believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The ride itself is introduced by scientists including a black woman. And during the ride, the narrator calls out the species names of the animatronic dinosaurs as they menace the riders. The Dino-Institute also displays the science-friendly slogan “Exploration, Excavation, Exultation.” (Unfortunately, there was a mildly anti-science sign in the Dino-Land Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama carnival rides. The sign showed a cartoon dinosaur ejecting a white-coated scientist, with the caption “Scientific? Nope. Terrific!”)

In Downtown Disney, the T-Rex Café offers another good example Disney’s grasp of the motivating teachable moment. Diners are surrounded by a collection of animatronic dinosaurs that periodically erupt with roars and movement, giving them a feel for what real dinosaurs must have been like. The cafe also offers the educational “Paleo-Zone,” which includes an archeological dig and educational video games.

Certainly, in your communications you can’t summon animatronic dinosaurs to create teachable moments. Nor would you probably want to post your research abstracts on bathroom stalls. But you can create other teachable moments to offer audiences information about your work. You could post articles or displays in the waiting rooms, hallways, and cafeterias of your building–and not just leftover posters from meetings, but displays tailored for important visitors, from students to donors.

You could add to your Web site a category of links to interesting background articles, FAQs, Q&As, videos, and other content. This material could come from your professional association or funding agency. The Explaining Research Web site has a list of such sources.

Also, consider creating a Facebook page or blog on which you record interesting news about your work, as covered in Explaining Research.

In looking for places to create teachable moments, think like Disney. Ask yourself what venues your audiences frequent, and what kind of information might be appropriate to for those venues? Now, on to examples of how Disney uses experience to communicate:

For many visitors to EPCOT, their first experience is the Spaceship Earth ride inside the giant geodesic dome. This “dark ride” takes visitors past animated tableaus depicting the history of communication – for example an animatronic man pounding papyrus into a flat sheet and printers using the first printing press. However, the most involving experience, comes near the end of the ride. Visitors see on the computer screen in their ride pod an image of their face inserted into a scenario of life in the future. When the ride ends, they then emerge into an “interactive playground,” in which, for example, they can assemble a human body in 3D.

The Animal Kingdom also includes a multitude of science-related experiences. Besides such rides as the Kilamanjaro Safari through the park, visitors walking the pathways might encounter an explainer carrying an animal–we saw a caged spider–who can answer questions about its biology and behavior.

Visitors can also see how the park’s animals are cared for. They can peer through a window into the veterinary center in The Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station in the Rafiki Planet Watch to watch animals get checkups and medical procedures.

Disney also makes its experiences multisensory, for example effectively using sound. “The Song of the Rainforest” comprises a set of dimly lit booths in which visitors don headphones to hear ultra-realistic rainforest sounds of animals, insects, chainsaws, and falling trees. The Planet Watch also offers information on projects visitors can do to create their own backyard animal habitats.

While you can’t bring such elaborate experiences to your audiences, you can come surprisingly close. When you give a seminar or talk, bring along an organism, mineral sample, instrument, or other object your audience can see, or even handle. If your work involves an interesting sound, include it in your presentation. Perform an engaging demonstration; or if there is some relevant, experiment your audience can do on their own, offer a handout or Web URL describing the experiment. Show a video of an experimental procedure. Even if that procedure is relatively mundane, the show-and-tell will make your talk more memorable. Direct your audience to an interesting place in the area where they can encounter an aspect of your work, for example a rock outcropping in a park or a museum exhibit. Ask for a volunteer from the audience, and use them in a demonstration, preferably a non-destructive one.

Also, think about ways to make your laboratory building experiential. You might install display cases with examples of your work. Or, if there is a public window into your laboratory, you might post information on the instruments and procedures that take place there. This assumes that your lab techs don’t mind having people peering at them.

It has always surprised and disappointed me how bereft laboratory buildings are of information and exhibits on the work going on there. This educational sterility has its consequences in making for an unfriendly atmosphere for audiences who might be interested in the work. Creating a version of a motivational, experiential “Disney World” in your laboratory has definite value in advancing your work. You never know when it might attract a passing student, colleague, administrator, or donor to become involved in your research.

In stressing Disney World’s use of motivation and experience, I don’t mean to imply that it fails to provide information. For most visitors, that information is packaged as modest nuggets embedded craftily in the fun experience. However, for those who want in-depth information, Disney does offer more extensive encounters. For example, most visitors in the Land pavilion are content with the short boat ride through the greenhouses, sliding quickly past displays of farming techniques such as aquaculture, hydroponics, and aeroponics. But visitors who want more can take the in-depth Behind the Seeds tour to learn about those techniques in more detail.

We took the Behind the Seeds tour, and besides learning more about the farming methods used, our enthusiastic, articulate agronomist guide showed us techniques of integrated pest management and tissue culture. We also tasted hydroponically grown cucumbers, and smelled samples of coffee, vanilla, pepper, and other crops grown in the giant greenhouses.

Disney certainly has far more resources than you do at their disposal to motivate visitors and give them memorable experiences. But with even a modest effort, you can make your talks, Web sites, articles, and videos more than just a Mickey Mouse production.